NaNoWriMo is now half over.
Claudia drove until she found a spot close to the mall’s main entrance. We recklessly gulped our beverages and then made for the door.
Looking at the glass-cased map just inside, we found not one store name bearing the word “wood.” Further, the numbers began in 100s, maybe so the mall seemed bigger in that hodunk town. Regardless of the reason, we had learned nothing.
She suggested, “How about we try to find things made of birchwood that represent our relationship and when we were kids?”
A lightbulb buzzed to life in my brain. “Or, when our relationship was young! Isn’t that what we were supposed to buy from the mall on Valentine’s Day?”
“Uh, you mean the weekend when you instead decided to drive to a porn shop in a blizzard and ended up in a ditch?”
I could not have been more displeased about having set myself up for that. Feigning utter cockiness, I answered, “Yes, that weekend.”
She shot me a dirty look, which I hoped to hell was also feigned.
I continued, “We were supposed to buy something that represented our getting together, right?”
“I bought a swing.” She laughed. “Which Walt now enjoys.”
“Well, let’s do that then. Along the same line, but made of birch.” Even to me, the one who made the suggestion, it sounded impossible—and damn stupid, but it sure as hell wasn’t as though we were given instructions. The shitheads!
We began window shopping. Jewelry. Kitchen gadgets. Flowers. Lingerie. Cookies. And, yes, chocolate chip cookies immediately diverted us from our mission.
“A hobby shop,” she said, minutes later, through the gooey cookie in her mouth, and she pointed. “Models. Woodworking.”
I had enough couth to swallow before I told her that was a good idea.
Except, wood-burning and carving tools were of no use, and neither were the kits to make birdhouses, cars, trucks, and dollhouses. What we ended up buying—what we talked ourselves into buying was a fifteen-dollar rubber stamp collection of the alphabet, uppercase only. While it did not say the stamps were made of birch, it didn’t say they were anything else either. If Maggie and Susan wanted to bear the expense of getting tree DNA tested, we wouldn’t stop them. We wanted to do a KIS and a CAK but “someone” hogged the K. So, we’d simply offer up a K and C, the stamp of approval.
Yeah, go ahead: laugh, roll your eyes. Could you have come up with something better?
We grabbed an ink pad because rubber stamps are a bit useless without one, hit the checkout, and flew out of the hobby shop.
Except, where were we supposed to go now? Back to the dumpy motel? Where the hell were the instructions?
Claudia pulled the note from her jeans pocket and pointed to a bench near the tiny town’s tiny mall’s tiny arboretum. We sat down, and I eyeballed the note as she read it aloud, “‘Wood it surprise you that Athens has a nice mall? Backpack? Tote ‘em! 10:15.’”
Immediately, she elbowed me. “We have to tote the backpack, meaning whatever our totem, we have to tote it in the backpack. Thank God we got small stamps.”
I wasn’t at all sure that was what the vegan and the schoolteacher meant, but I sure as hell had no better interpretation.
“Nothing tells us where to go next, though,” I said.
“Maybe we’re just supposed to go back to the motel. Where else would we go?”
“I would like tell them where to go.”
Scaring the shit out of both of us, Ginny and Kris appeared, and I figured that if they had been behind us and some damn clock was ticking, we were screwed.
“Lost?” Claudia asked, but it wasn’t in the sarcastic way Ginny obviously took it.
“Does it look as though we’re lost, Alberta?” Her hand came in my direction, and while I had never for even a second in my life felt physically threatened by Ginny, I ducked, which only made her laugh. She reached between Claudia and me and … and … and … snipped the tip off a branch from the tiny tree in the tiny town’s tiny mall’s tiny arboretum.
What the hell?
I thought Ginny—er, Gertie was nuts. I was convinced Gertie was nuts. At least, I did until I craned my head around to see white papery bark. It was a frickin’ birch tree! Jesus, we were morons—losing morons.
I swatted Claudia, pointed to the trees, and then scowled at Gertie, who snickered, threaded her arm through Kris’—Amah’s, and toddled off.
“Where are we supposed to go next?” Claudia called after them, making our utter ignorance a public service announcement.
The professors—er, the psychologist and the coffeeshop owner applied the brakes.
Gertie’s reply was snide, “You’re sitting under a birch tree and you really have no clue?”
Amah’s response, on the other hand, showed the pity we sorely needed. “The locker,” she said, and instantly, she received a swat to the gut from Gertie.
The two turned and were swiftly walking away when the desperate Claudia made one more plea, “What locker?”
Amah raised an arm high above her head and thrust an index finger straight ahead.
Claudia shot to her feet, ripped a twig from the goddamn birch tree, and barked, “Let’s go, Heady!”
I still had no clue where we were supposed to go, but I followed her, hoping to hell she did.
It soon became apparent, however, that she didn’t know either. She simply hurried to catch up with Gertie and Amah, and we trailed them to the main entrance. We would have probably gone right to their van with them had Amah not made another gesture, this one out of Gertie’s line of sight, off to the right.
We stopped dead in our tracks and did a very mechanical turn.
In a small alcove, there was a whole frickin’ wall of lockers. I kid you not. We were idiots, having had stood but yards away studying the goddamn mall map.
We marched toward them, and I noted four rows with a big-ass letter next to each: A, B, C, and D for duh! Yep, seventeen lockers over on the C row was 17C, C for chumps! Claudia angrily shoved the key into the hole, and sure enough, it turned. B was for b-words! How the hell had they expected us to figure this out? How the hell had Gertie and Amah? I had never in all my frickin’ life had reason to use a locker in a mall.
With a growl, Claudia retrieved the envelope tucked inside the big locker, and with a brain-rattling sound, she slammed shut the locker door.
We turned around to see Gertie half out the door, snickering at us.
A was now for assholes!
After the door closed behind the gloating one, Claudia held out the note, and we both read: Heady and Alberta, good job figuring it out and getting this far!
Uh, actually Gertie and Amah figured it out.
All that work must have made you hungry. Wood you like some lunch? Try the farmer’s market near Elmwood Drive. 11:15.
A glance to my watch told me it was 11:53. I still didn’t know whether their mention of time meant arriving or leaving or their assumption of when we’d open the envelope. It didn’t really matter, though; with Ginny and Kris now ahead of us, it was obvious that we were far behind.
“Let’s go,” Claudia charged, and we raced to the door.
We were sprinting to the car when her sudden seizure of my arm forced me to stop.
I did not like her tone. It was a preface to something not good.
“What was the name of the motel?”
“Um…” I had to picture the sign I had seen when she had turned into its lot. “Oh, shit!” I seized her arm. “Red Pine Motor Lodge. Shit! Shit! Shit!”
“We are so stupid!” She dragged me toward the car as she said, “‘Wood’ was a clue to where we were, not where we were going. We needed red pine.”
She unlocked the doors, and very defeatedly, we wilted inside.
We debated whether going back to the motel made any sense whatsoever. Eventually, we both agreed that it didn’t; we had already lost time—and probably the game, too, and without the frickin’ ability to use our phones for anything but emergencies, we couldn’t look up what the hell red pine even looked like. My brain conjured up an image of a Christmas tree on fire.
“Which is stupider, the game or us?”
Readily, we agreed that it was the game, followed closely by Ginny and Kris, for no other reason than because we said so.